Tag Archives: Berenice Abbott

THEIR IRRESISTIBLE STORIES

It’s taken me some time to write about Hank O’Neal’s book, THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM (Vanderbilt University Press), but admiration slowed me down.  What follows is only the smallest sample of its contents. 

Between 1985 and 2007, O’Neal (an excellent home-grown journalist who knew how to ask questions and get out of the way) interviewed forty-two jazz giants.  Some were well-known (Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Illinois Jacquet, Cab Calloway, Andy Kirk, Sy Oliver, Jonah Jones, Benny Carter, Maxine Sullivan, Buddy Tate), others no less deserving but in semi-obscurity to all but jazz devotees and scholars (Al Cobbs, Ovie Alston, Gene Prince).  Almost all of O’Neal’s subjects have now died: Frank Wess, Terry, and Billy Taylor might be the sole survivors. 

Rather than ask each musician for a long autobiographical summary, O’Neal focused on their memories of Harlem.  Fascinating stories resulted, which eventually proved stronger than their grief for a way of life that they had seen vanish.  

O’Neal is also a fine photographer from the old school — Berenice Abbott was his occasionally irritable mentor — so the book has large-format photographs of its subjects, often in their homes, as well as invaulable jazz memorabilia (advertisements and posters, record labels and the like) and photographs of the buildings that now stand where the uptown clubs used to be.  I find those transformations hard to take; that Connie’s Inn is now a C-Town supermarket makes me gloomy.

But because many of the musicians had never been asked to talk about Harlem, they responded with fresh stories that were hilarious, profound, touching.  

Fats Waller’s advice to guitarist Al Casey: “Don’t ever let your head get too big because there is always that little boy around the corner that can outplay you and outdo everything you do.”

Harry Edison, recalling his mother’s economic advice: ” [When I was fourteen or fifteen] I played with a guy named Earl Hood.  I remember I had to have a tuxedo and my mother paid two dollars for it.  We played little jobs around Columbus and every time I got home my mother used to ask me, ‘How much did you make?’  I’d tell her that Mr. Hood told me I was playing for the experience, and she said, ‘To hell with experience, you might as well stay home if you’re not going to get paid.’ ”

Edison’s memory of pianist Don Lambert taunting Art Tatum at an uptown jam session: “Get up off that chair.  You can’t play, you’ve got no left hand, you’re the world’s worst piano player.”

How clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton asked Teddy Wilson for a raise: “Teddy, I think you ought to put a little yeast in the money.”

Al Cobbs, remembering what Louis Armstrong said about the crowds he drew: “Let me tell you something.  The kind of music I’m playing makes people feel good–the folks come in and they buy steaks.  But some of the things people are playing make people sad, and these folks will just sit there, drink a Coca-Cola, and stay all night.”

The record session that Nat Cole wanted to organize in California, with Illinois Jacquet: “He’d be on piano.  I’d play my horn, and Jimmy Blanton, Sid Catlett, and Charlie Christian would make up the rhythm section.  That sounded great to me.”

The book is full of stories: impatient Stuff Smith wandering out on the ledge of a tall building.  How Coleman Hawkins explained his record of BODY AND SOUL to Thelma Carpenter as musical love-making.  What Milt Hinton’s teacher said to him.  Danny Barker explaining the difference between New Orleans and New York in terms of hospitality.  Al Casey paying tribute to Teddy Bunn.  Buddy Tate remembering the last time he saw Charlie Parker alive. 

And the book comes with a compact disc of many of the giants playing (and talking) — musical history.

THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM is too cumbersome to take to the beach, but it’s a masterpiece.  To learn more about it, visit http://www.vanderbiltuniversitypress.com/books/335/the-ghosts-of-harlem, where you can see twenty beautiful sample pages.

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CHARLES PETERSON’S VISION

This is the second part of what I hope will be a long series on the jazz photography of Charles Peterson, who mystically saw the essence of jazz.  00000005

Here’s Peterson the documentary photographer — his casual, offhanded shot of a quartet led by Sidney Bechet, who is characteristically both in command and absolutely at the service of the music he is creating, the experience ecstatic and powerful.  What I find fascinating are the expressions on the faces of his sidemen: Cliff Jackson (whom I remember seeing in later photographs as white-haired) looks up at the Master to see where the currents of music are going; Eddie Dougherty, a wonderful and little-known Brooklyn-born drummer, seems anxious, although he may have only been caught in mid-comment, and Wellman Braud is quietly gleeful, rocking in rhythm.  They seem small objects drawn into Bechet’s vortex.  The photo suggests that any cohesive jazz group forms itself into a unit, but each musician retains his or her essential personality, and in this picture we see the quiet tension between the Selves and the Community.  And this photo brings up another of Peterson’s unintended gifts to us: how many people ever were fortunate enough to be at the Mimo Club in Harlem to hear this quartet, much less at this moment on February 16, 1942?  But — with a substantial record collection, some memory and imagination — we can invent the music that this band is creating. 

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This is a new split-second capture from a famous jazz session and photo shoot: the Commodore Records session of April 20, 1939, where Billie Holiday recorded STRANGE FRUIT, YESTERDAYS, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, and FINE AND MELLOW.  The musicians are bassist Johnny Williams, trumpeter Frank Newton, altoist Stanley Payne, and tenorist Kenneth Hollon.  Billie is holding a long-noted syllable; is it the “Yes” in YESTERDAYS?  And she is very young, very beautiful, also giving herself up to the music, her hands folded, her eyes almost-shut, Peterson’s lighting capturing her mouth, chin, and throat.  What distinguishes this portrait from others at this session is Billie’s lovely and obviously-treasured fur coat.  I find it ironic, seventy years after the session, that there is such a gap between Billie in her fur — which she deserved more than anyone — and the material she sings with such deep emotion.  One song, most famous, describes lynchings in the South; another describes a “fine and mellow” lover who doesn’t treat his woman well; a third and fourth describe bygone happinesses, all gone now, and the blues one sings when one’s lover has left.  And Billie sang these four songs as if her heart would break . . . wearing that fur coat.  Later in the session, of course, she got warm and took it off.  And no doubt the irony didn’t occur to her and she would have laughed it off if someone pointed it out, “Lady, you look too good to be singing those blues!”00000010

Hard at work is all I can say.  The caption states that this is the Summa Cum Laude band — led in part by Bud Freeman, arrangements by valve-trombonist Brad Gowans — performing at Nick’s in December 1938.  The band must be negotiating some serious ensemble passage, for they all look so intent.  Bassist Clyde Newcome stares out into space, as does Pee Wee Russell; Gowans and Freeman, especially Brad, are watching the band warily, or perhaps Brad is reading the music off the stand in the center.  I would guess that the drummer is Al Sidell, but I would hope that it is Stan King* — drummers shuttled in and out of this band.  The rather somber effect of this picture suggests to me that the band is playing one of its medleys of current hits (you can hear them on the airshots in 1939-40 from Chicago’s Panther Room at the Hotel Sherman . . . grown men of this artistic stature playing SIERRA SUE, but what can I say?)  Serious business indeed.  (In his later comment, Mike Burgevin points out that I left out Max Kaminsky.  How did I do this?)  *Don Peterson confirmed that the drummer is indeed Stan King — one of jazz’s entirely forgotten men. 

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This photo lets me imagine a time before I was born when James P. Johnson could wear his pin-stripe suit and play the piano, which is what he was meant to do.  It was taken in 1946, on a “Jazz on the River” cruise organized by Rudi Blesh and Art Hodes to go up and down the Hudson River.  From left, there’s the hand of an unidentified bassist, James P., Baby Dodds, Marty Marsala on trumpet (with the appropriate handkerchief) and guitarist Danny Barker — some of the same crew who turned up on the THIS IS JAZZ radio broadcasts.   But my secret pleasure in this photograph comes from the pretty woman whose head seems (although much smaller) in the same plane as James P.’s.  She is tidily dressed; her cardigan, pulled together at the collar, reveals a neat floral blouse beneath; we sense that she wears a neat wool skirt.  Her eyeglasses gleam in Peterson’s flashbulb; her hair is demure; her modest lipstick is in place.  Her hands are decorously in her lap.  Yet it’s clear — although she is prim, restrained, the last person to whoop and knock over her highball — that she is deeply pleased by what she hears.  As much as Bechet or James P., she is in the grip of the music, wanting it to go on forever. 

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Berenice Abbott told Hank O’Neal that most of photography was having the patience to wait for the right moment.  I’ll end this series with a superbly right moment — with only two musicians, Eddie Condon and Bobby Hackett, playing at the “Friday Club” jam sessions held at the Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan — this one on February 17, 1939.  Hackett here is much as I remember him, up close, in 1972: a small, slender man, neatly dressed, dark eyebrows, thin wrists with black hair on them.  Here he is all of 24, and so small that while standing he is only inches taller than Condon, sitting.  The expression on his face might be a smile or it might be that he is working hard to bring off a particular nuanced phrase.  But our attention is drawn to Condon, also young and healthy.  Condon called Hackett “The Impostor,” because — with his peculiarly ornate wit, he said “Nobody can be that good.”  The teasing compliment almost slips away, but you get the point.  What is more important in this picture — more than Condon’s neat attire — is his grin, his head turned in delight and pleasure and admiration towards Hackett, who is clearly playing something marvelous, inimitable, lovely.  Condon is astonished by what he’s hearing, but he’s expected no less from Bobby.  This photograph captures the joy (and the labor) of this music better than any prose. 

Thank you, Charles Peterson!

P.S.  It didn’t surprise me that Peterson’s offspring were particularly talented in music, film, and writing.  His daughter, Karen Yochim, a successful country-and-western songwriter, lives in Louisiana, has written extensively about Cajun culture for newspapers and magazines — and is branching out as a crime novelist.  Peterson’s granddaughter Schascle “Twinkle” Yochim (her name is Cajun, pronounced “Suh-Shell”) is a professional singer with several CDs, concentrating on soul, rock, and to a limited extent, country-and-western. She’s also a songwriter, with songs accepted in feature films currently in production.  

After a career in the Navy, Peterson’s son, Don, worked for the Navy Department in Washington, DC, doing motion picture & television scriptwriting.  Don also wrote scripts for many film and television productions.  He retired in 1986 and now concentrates on marketing his father’s photographic legacy, most lavishly accessible in the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.